Catherine cookson movie list

Top Ten Catherine Cookson Dramas

The Secret

Catherine Cookson has been a well-known name in the historical romance genre for many years. In her long life she produced over a hundred novels set in various times and covering a wide range of social issues. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find one she hasn’t touched upon at some point. It is with some embarrassment then that I admit that I have not read a single one of them, but I have seen each of the adaptations. I was introduced to them by getting several of the productions free with a newspaper back when that was a thing. I found that I rather enjoyed them.

After doing a little research, it appeared that many had been adapted over the years. Some of which the author approved of, others that were less well-received. A lot of these adaptations are decades old now, often starring actors in early roles that are famous today. Sean Bean, Janet Mcteer, Robson Green, Catherine Zeta Jones, Tara Fitzgerald, Samantha Bond, Jack Davenport, Emilia Fox, Ciaran Hinds and Nathaniel Parker to name just a few. More recently, I bought the entire box set and have now seen all 23. So without further ado, I present to you my top ten in no particular order:

(No Particular Order)

#1: The Black Candle

This is certainly one of her darker stories. There are two main characters, Joe who marries a woman already pregnant with another man’s child and Bridget, a successful business woman. The two are unlikely friends. When Joe’s wastrel brother is murdered by a man who both main characters have ties with, Joe is accused of the murder due to a few thoughtless words. Bridget sets out to prove his innocence, never imagining how close she is is to the real killer.

#2: A Dinner of Herbs Part 1

The story begins as a friendship between three friends, Roddy, Hal and Mary, each cared for in some way by a kindly herb woman in their village. As they grow up, love, pride and suspicion tears them apart. Two eventually reunite despite the malevolent efforts of darker forces responsible for the death of both Hal’s father and Roddy’s. I found part 2 to be less good.

#3: The Glass Virgin

Little Annabella La Grange appears to have everything as the daughter of two rich factory owners, but she is lonely. Her only friend is Manuel (Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey), a young Italian groom, who is several years older than her. However, due to not one but two revelations about her parentage she runs away from home in the company of the reluctant Manuel. Love blossoms on the road as they try to make their way in the world, but her adoptive parents will not let her go so easily.

#4: The Cinder Path

Charlie is an educated and gentle natured young man with an abusive father who is grooming him to take on the farm after his death, something which he is in no way cut out for. He is charmed into marrying Victoria, a selfish and promiscuous woman whose family is well connected. Through this he is completely unaware that her younger sister, Nellie , the kinder and worthier of the two harbours a secret love for him. A few years later the First World War begins and Charlie leaves a miserable home life behind to go to the front. During the brief periods of leave afforded him, he rekindles his friendship with Nellie.

#5: The Rag Nymph

After she loses her mother at a young age, Millie is taken in by Rag Aggie, a rag and bone woman who is short tempered as she is protective. She learns to love living with Annie and Ben, a fellow orphan under Aggie’s wing and a hunchback. Living close to a brothel run by a dangerous man who notices her beauty, she must watch her step or ‘disappear’ as many pretty girls like her have before. Meanwhile, Ben is secretly in love with her but despairs that she could ever return his love. If I had to choose a favourite it would be this one.

#6: The Girl

An ill woman and her young daughter visit the house of a rich land owner. She knew him in the past and tells him he is the father of her daughter. She leaves the girl with him and dies soon after. The land owner, not being an unkind man decides to raise the girl to his wife’s horror. She is cruel to the child, beating her and keeping her separated from her own children. Despite this, Hannah grows up to be a well educated and sought after young woman. However, when her father dies abruptly his wife forces Hannah into a marriage she does not want. All is not lost as Hannah finds love with another man who she has known since she came to the village as a child.

#7: The Round Tower

In the fifties Vanessa, a lonely young woman with superficial and upwardly mobile parents, falls pregnant and will not say who the father is. It is assumed that a friend of hers, Angus, a young overseer at her father’s factory is responsible. He is fired and she is thrown out. She tries to live on her own but struggles. Partly out of genuine affection for her and spite for her parents, he offers to marry her. At the end of her rope, she accepts him. Despite the disapproval of everyone around them, they begin to form a close bond that needs to withstand all the odds stacked against them.

#8: The Secret

This one begins with a young boy fleeing with a baby girl in his arms. He has just saved her from a father that wished to kill her. Years later, Freddie is a reformed smuggler and still fiercely protective of Belle who has been raised by Claire, his friend and mentor. When Belle chooses to marry a seemingly charming and rich man, Freddie has doubts and not just because of his own growing feelings for Belle. Sensing that something is not right about him, he urges Belle not to marry him. Believing him to just be jealous, she ignores the warning. Her new husband starts to behave erratically after they are married and it is up to Freddie to save her again. This drama stars Stephan Moyer of True Blood fame.

#9: The Gambling Man

Rory is a rent collector and semi-successful gambler. Looking to get into more profitable poker games, he becomes involved with the criminal underground. This inevitably leads to his being double-crossed when he proves too good at the game and is beaten to within an inch of his life. Before this, he had become quite successful at his job, even being made a partner. His employer Charlotte becomes determined to find the men responsible as she has become fond of him despite his less than noble aspects. Very intelligent and resourceful, Charlotte closes in on those responsible. Things become very dangerous for the two just as they have developed genuine love and affection for one another.

#10: The Black Velvet Gown

The story takes place in two parts. In the first young widow Riah has to leave her labourer’s cottage once her husband dies. She gets a position as housekeeper and moves to the new establishment with her children. Her new employer is a little eccentric and seems overly fond of her son. While its never explained whether it was actually sinister or not, the boy is sent away by a suspicious Riah. Years later her daughter who oddly despite the strangeness with her brother has developed a close father-daughter relationship with him much to Riah’s chagrin. He has taught her languages, arithmetic and literature. However when he dies, he leaves the house and his land to Riah. Because he had little to no money left in the end and due to a bad relationship with her mother, Biddy is sent out to work. Far too educated for a laundry servant she clashes with her employers who believe the working class should not be allowed to read and write, let alone recite Latin and poetry. However for this very reason, she draws the interest of one of the young masters, who becomes quite taken with her.

The Moth and The Wingless Bird also get honorable mentions….Catherine Cookson dramas offer a wide range of stories to any period drama fan. The full box set is available here but they can also be purchased separately. They are also available on Netflix in some countries.

Photo credits: BBC/ITV

What’s your favorite Catherine Cookson adaptation? Sound off in the comments…


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The notion that she had been born a lady took a startling turn when Dame Catherine, then known as Katie McMullen, read in a novel that it was a lady’s duty to be educated, which she took to heart, beginning a lifelong habit of reading great books.

She found her immediate escape from poverty by working in laundries, rising to supervisor, saving her money, moving to the southeastern city of Hastings and opening a rooming house for men.

One of her lodgers was a shy, intellectual school teacher named Tom Cookson, and as Dame Catherine later told it, it was close to love at first sight. When she asked him in for coffee after their first movie date, the two sat up talking until after midnight. ”Now,” she said, ”whether it was him, or whether it was me who first leaned to the other I don’t know. But we kissed and that was that.”

After their marriage the couple were inseparable, but after experiencing a stillbirth and three miscarriages Mrs. Cookson, who suffered from a lifelong blood disorder, endured years of suicidal depression until her husband suggested she try to overcome her despair by writing.

Although none won literary acclaim, a number of her books, including ”The Black Candle,” and ”The Velvet Gown,” were made into television movies, and Mrs. Cookson, an Officer of the British Empire since 1985, was made a Dame, the equivalent of a Knight, in 1993.

Her husband is her only survivor.

TV on Tyne

Dame Catherine Cookson’s work helped to put the North East firmly on the map.

Her fiction was set in the region and millions of copies were sold around the world.

Then when the books were made into films, North East locations were used, taking the region’s locations into people’s living rooms.

Scene from A Dinner of Herbs

The man responsible for bringing the Cooksons to the screen was Ray Marshall with his company Festival Films and Television.

Long-running franchise

Between 1989 and 2001, he produced 18 mini-series of Dame Catherine’s work.

He said: “It was about 12 or 13 years so it was the major thing that I have done in my career by a mile.

“It was really what established my company firmly as a big drama producer. It was incredibly important as was my relationship with Catherine Cookson.”

Ray started off the franchise with The Fifteen Streets in 1989 and the last one was A Dinner of Herbs in 2001.

He said it was important to set the films in the North East as the books were.

North East locations

Among the locations used in the films were Alnwick Castle, Belsay Hall, Marsden Grotto and the Cheviot hills.

Catherine Zeta Jones in The Cinder Path

In The Moth, Eshott Hall, in Northumberland, was chosen as the location for a major fire scene.

Tow Law moor, in County Durham, was used to recreate an action scene from World War I for The Cinder Path.

A mine was recreated in a factory near Gateshead in Tilly Trotter and in The Glass Virgin, Newcastle’s Hanover Street was transformed into a 1850s street.

Ray said: “I think the North East became very much part of my life for a while. I sort of felt a bit like an honorary Tynesider just for having spent so much time there.

“Her work was very much grounded in the North East.”

He said he thought the films had played a key role in bringing the North East to a wider audience in the 80s and 90s.

Another characteristic of the films was their ability to cast young actors who went on to enjoy successful careers alongside more established names.

Robson Green in The Gambling Man

Among those who starred in the Cooksons were Sean Bean, Catherine Zeta Jones, Robson Green and Emilia Fox.

Ray said: “I think the casting in the Cooksons was so crucial to its success.”

Enduring interest

He said it is difficult to pick out a favourite from the films, although The Fifteen Streets has a special place in his heart because it was the first one.

Ray said he would love to make another Cookson film but it would all be dependent on getting the funding into place. The next one he would like to bring to the screen is Katie Mulholland.

He also said he wasn’t surprised at the enduring interest in her work.

“I think she had a massive fanbase when she was alive. I think that fanbase hasn’t really gone away,” he said.